Seeking an Rx for skyrocketing drug prices

Task force brings business, consumers, Republicans and Democrats to the table

A customer hands a prescription to a pharmacist. Getty Images

In the face of escalating prescription drug prices, a task force appointed by Gov. Tony Evers will start work Wednesday, Nov. 20, searching for what remedies the state could offer.

“More and more people are finding it difficult to afford prescription medication,” said Nathan Houdek, deputy commissioner in the state Office of the Commissioner of Insurance (OCI) and chair of the task force established by Evers in Executive Order No. 39. The task force represents an opportunity “to address out-of-control prescription drug prices.”

Gov. Tony Evers

He noted that Evers had attempted in his budget proposal some initiatives, including measures that would increase drug price transparency and that would permit importing prescription drugs from countries where they’re priced less expensively. Both were removed from the budget by the Republican majority in the legislature before it went to Evers for his signature.

In addition to the chair, the task force brings together 20 representatives of several state agencies, consumers, the pharmaceutical industry, legislators, and other groups.

In choosing from applicants, OCI and Evers’ staff aimed “to bring together a diverse set of voices around the table,” Houdek said. “Because this is such a complicated issue, we think it’s really important to get all the perspectives and input from all of the stakeholders who are involved in the prescription drug supply chain.”

‘Important to all ages’

One consumer representative is Lisa Lampkins, advocacy director for AARP Wisconsin, which counts 840,000 members in the state and represents people 50 and older.

“This issue is so important to our members, but honestly it’s important to people of all ages,” Lampkins said.

She noted that people in the age range represented by her organization take on average more than four prescription drugs a month — and that many are on modest or fixed incomes. “When you put the two of those together, people are having to choose between buying their drugs or buying groceries.”

Tyler-Vorpagel
Tyler Vorpagel

Besides his role as a state lawmaker, State Rep. Tyler Vorpagel (R-Plymouth), one of three legislators on the panel, has a personal stake in the issue. “I’m a diabetic,” he said. “Insulin cost is something I’ve experienced. I have good health care, but I can see what the label price is.”

Skyrocketing prices for insulin have become a recurring example of rising drug prices

“The sky-high costs of prescription drugs in Wisconsin is a major burden for families all over the state,” said Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison), another lawmaker on the task force. “I have heard from constituents about their struggles to afford prescription medications, and no one should have to choose between filling their prescriptions and having enough food.”

State solutions for national problem

Josh Bindl, CEO of National CooperativeRx, a pharmacy benefit cooperative based in Fitchburg that negotiates drug prices on behalf of employers offering self-funded medical and drug benefits to their employees, said his goal in serving on the task force includes “bringing the employer voice to the discussion.”

As a nationwide problem, ”this is an issue that should be addressed at the federal level,” Bindl said of drug-price inflation, but the federal government isn’t acting. “Until it is addressed at the federal level, states are going to come up with solutions, and it makes sense for people to sit down and do this together.”

States can play a role, several task force members agreed. “There’s a range of policy solutions that have been advanced in other states,” said Houdek. “We feel like there’s an opportunity for Wisconsin to learn from other states.”

To that end, Wednesday’s opening meeting will include representatives of the National Governors Association, which has a health policy division. “They really have a strong knowledge base and bring a lot of expertise to what states are doing to address this challenge,” Houdek said.

“This is one of those issues where I think there really is a role at both levels,” said Lampkins of AARP Wisconsin. “Certain things can be done at the federal level, like Medicare negotiation” with drug manufacturers, she continued. “But the state actually has power over a lot of drug programs as well” — as a buyer for state agencies, state employees, the Department of Corrections, and for the Medicaid program.

The state also can find ways to create and sustain programs that may help people afford drugs, she added, such as Wisconsin’s SeniorCare program

Seeking agreement

Lisa Subeck

Subeck offered a broad agenda for government action: “I look forward to examining the ways state lawmakers and agencies can increase access to affordable medication, remove hidden costs, and ensure that pharmaceutical companies and distributors operate with the interests of consumers at the forefront,” she said in an emailed statement.

Vorpagel said he hoped that the task force could produce bipartisan solutions. 

“My general philosophy is there’s usually about 70% of things we can agree on, and let’s see what those are,” he said. “On the 30% of those that we don’t agree on, we can try and work on [them], and if we don’t get there, as long as we’re moving the ball forward, that’s what I care about.”

Already, Vorpagel mentioned, companion bills AB-114 and SB-100 have been introduced that would more tightly regulate pharmacy benefit managers in the name of stronger price transparency. 

The bills have broad, bipartisan backing — both Subeck and Vorpagel are among the large number of cosponsors from both parties. But neither has yet been set for a hearing.

Bindl, whose own business could be affected by the legislation as written, argued more generally that some measures aimed at solving the problem could wind up increasing costs if they make it more difficult for employers to negotiate lower prices. 

Despite such concerns, Bindl said he approaches the task force work with a positive attitude. “Let’s have a conversation about the pros and cons of various things being proposed,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a good discussion, and hope that it is a productive use of all of our time and efforts.”

Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn reports and writes on work, the economy, health care & policy, and related subjects for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. At the Examiner office first thing in the morning, he's the one with YoutTube on streaming Springsteen concerts, 1970s Americana rock and the occasional British Progressive music cuts in between model railroad how-to clips. So far his campaign to build an HO layout in the our office conference space has produced only pats on the head and eyerolls from his colleagues, but he loves them anyway.